Lin-Manuel Miranda: My Favorite Movie Musicals (Yes, ‘Labyrinth’ Counts)

An infant floating down the Colorado River in a basket. This scene from the 1964 movie musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is seared into the memory of Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s my dad’s favorite movie of all time, and it was required viewing growing up,” Miranda recalled recently.

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Julie Bloom
, New York Times

An infant floating down the Colorado River in a basket. This scene from the 1964 movie musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is seared into the memory of Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s my dad’s favorite movie of all time, and it was required viewing growing up,” Miranda recalled recently.

That movie and a slew of other screen musicals were in regular rotation throughout Miranda’s childhood in Inwood in Upper Manhattan. “My mom loved Shirley Temple movies, and my dad loved ‘Sound of Music,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ anything with Debbie Reynolds, and ‘Mary Poppins,’ early and often,” he said with a laugh.

Now Miranda is starring opposite Emily Blunt in a sequel of sorts to one of those beloved movies: “Mary Poppins Returns,” directed by Rob Marshall, arrives in theaters Dec. 19.

The movie musicals Miranda watched growing up have played a formative role in his development as a composer, lyricist and performer on the stage (“In the Heights,” “Hamilton”) and the big screen (“Moana”). It’s an art form he clearly reveres, as he told me in a phone interview about his favorite movie musicals.

“One of the hardest things to do is to make a successful musical,” he said. “I don’t mean financially successful, I mean artistically. Where all the art forms — the choreography, the music, the dancing, the sets, the songs, all build toward these moments. When they’re all working in tandem, I do not think there is a more thrilling art form, full stop.”

But, he added, the challenge of creating those moments becomes even greater onscreen. “When you make a movie musical, the suspension of disbelief is much higher, and it’s harder to buy people singing,” he said. “Maybe it’s because the settings are more realistic, but when someone bursts into song in a movie, for some reason we really have to earn it.”

And still more art forms have to work together with film: “You’re adding cinematography, and you’re adding camera movement, so it’s even harder to make the magic trick, but when it does it’s even more powerful.”

What do those moments look like? The end of “Moulin Rouge” is one of his favorite examples. “When they’re all singing ‘Roxanne’ and everyone’s necks are popping out of their heads holding that note, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “But it’s a harder spell to cast.”

Miranda dismisses critics who find musicals too corny or unrelatable. “There are some people who say, ‘I don’t really like musicals,'” he said. “That means that music is very divorced from their life experience and they’re not willing to let music bleed into everyday speech or an everyday moment. Growing up in a Latino household, it’s the most natural thing in the world for music to bubble over into conversation.”

He knew the setting for his first show, “In the Heights,” had to be Washington Heights: “You can’t walk a block without hearing music coming out of some corner or car. And so I think that’s why it feels natural to me.”

I asked Miranda to tell us about his top five movie musicals. Here they are in no particular order.

“The Little Mermaid” (1989)

“My own contributions to the musicals in the VHS player at home really begin with ‘The Little Mermaid,'” Miranda, now 38, recalled. “I don’t know why I loved it so much, but it really grabbed ahold of me. I was obsessed with it. I was in about fourth grade when it came out, and I remember seeing it on a play date with a friend and I remember going home and making my sister take me and then my parents again. I remember the day it came out on VHS, leaving early from school so I could get it from the store and not have to wait until the end of the school day.”

Why was it so influential? “It’s a combination of things: The moment ‘Under the Sea’ began, I was transported. I remember feeling weightless. I remember thinking, ‘You can do a musical number under the freaking ocean.’ That was revelatory. And it’s a calypso number, the fact that it felt contemporary, was huge. Steel drums and Caribbean-sounding music, it rocked my world. ‘Kiss the Girl’ when you’re 9 is the most romantic thing in your life,” he added. “I was kind of the perfect age for that Disney golden-era renaissance of animated movie musical in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” He ticked off a list that included “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”: “pretty perfect animated musical movies.”

“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “The Band Wagon” (1953)

Once Miranda got to college at Wesleyan University and was studying both theater and film, he fell in love with the MGM era of movie musicals. “Considering my dad’s love for Debbie Reynolds, it’s strange that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ didn’t play more in my house, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I was older,” he said. “It is a perfect movie. Every number in it is kind of glorious. What I love about both these movies is I don’t think you could make them today because we don’t make stars like that anymore. The long take of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, respectively. Donald O’Connor in the number ‘Make ‘Em Laugh.’ I can watch that scene a million times and it shouldn’t still make me laugh, but it does. Lots of times you watch in wonder that it even exists.”

When it comes to “The Band Wagon,” Miranda said, “I joke to people, the last scene is how I would like the last scene of my life to go. It’s Fred Astaire, he’s worked on this musical out of town and he thinks they’ve got a big hit, but nobody is celebrating, and so he sings in a little funk, ‘I guess I’ll have to find my way.’ And then he goes into the room and everyone he loves is in one room and they all sing ‘So he’s a jolly good fellow,’ and Cyd Charisse says, On top of making this musical with you, I love you. And then his best friends show up and then they all sing ‘That’s Entertainment.’ I mean what a way to go.” The movie was also a revelation to this child of the ‘80s, who grew up trying to do the “Smooth Criminal” moves of Michael Jackson. “It’s entirely taken from the sequence at the end of that film,” he said. “The suit, the dance; you see what an influence Fred Astaire was on one of our biggest heroes growing up.”

“Chicago” (2002)

“What I always say about Rob Marshall is he should have been born in the MGM era, and I think he’d be the first to admit that too,” Miranda said. “He’s kind of the closest director we have in terms of taking today’s stars and crafting incredible musicals with them.” He cited the “Cell Block Tango” from Marshall’s version of “Chicago.” It’s “about as thrilling a piece of musical theater moviemaking as exists. It could sit alongside any of those old movies from that era, and yet what amazes me about it is the way he frames the story and that we very firmly go into people’s heads and we have license to do whatever we want once we’re in there. And it’s so clear. In a lot of bad movie musicals, the editing is such that you can’t even tell who is dancing or what’s going on, and Rob uses editing to do the opposite, he uses editing to illuminate the gifts of the people on screen, and it’s really awesome.”

“Labyrinth” (1986)

“I don’t think people would think of that as a movie musical, but it is totally a David Bowie movie musical,” Miranda said. “Unless you saw it as a child, you’re like, what is going on here? Who greenlit this very strange movie? And while it’s a kids’ movie, there’s really dark scary stuff and David Bowie is wearing super-tight pants, but it was a huge movie for me growing up. My sister was obsessed with it. She would say, ‘And I’m not going to go to the Labyrinth to get you. I will just be very happy with David Bowie, my goblin king husband.’ It was a very real threat. But also those songs are great. I pay homage to it when I wrote the songs for ‘Moana.’ Tamatoa the crab is a love letter to a David Bowie song, because for my generation, our first experience with David Bowie was as a movie musical villain. I’m sure ‘Labyrinth’ doesn’t make anyone else’s top 10 musicals, but it wields a strange power in my life and in our house growing up.”

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